Dwarven Tanks

Final Fantasy 4 low resolution, dwarven tanks attacking the tower of Bab-IlI’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I’m a huge fan of oldschool Final Fantasy games. Any numbered games X or prior are great, but IV, VI, VII, and VIII are my favorites by far. Amusingly, I’ve never really had a taste for western RPGs of the video game variety, such as the Elder Scrolls series, or Mass Effect games. They much more closely emulate my one true love–tabletop games–but I think there’s a sort of “uncanny valley” effect for me. I like linear games, and I like games with true tactical infinity, but games which emulate tactical infinity without actually giving me infinite options can just be frustrating.

I think it was on my second or third play-through of Final Fantasy IV when I had this idea. There’s a point, about halfway through the game, after you steal the airship from the evil city-state of Baron. The heroes must fly into a giant crater which connects the surface world to the vast underground realm of the dwarves. Almost immediately you find yourself in the middle of a pitched battle between the Baronian airship navy, and the land-based dwarven tanks.

World of Warcraft Dwarven TankThe tanks make a few more appearances throughout the game, and the idea intrigued me. I am apparently not alone in this, because both the Warcraft and Warhammer franchises employ dwarves with tanks. Perhaps it’s because the race themselves–short, squat, and unimaginably tough–fundamentally resemble tanks. Whatever the reason, I decided that dwarven tanks would make a great addition to my D&D games. However, I’m not a huge fan of including technology in fantasy games. It can be a fun twist for a setting, but as a general rule I like the most advanced technology in my games to be a crossbow. So the challenge was to create a dwarven tank which didn’t rely on technology, but also did not rely on an excessive use of magic, since dwarves would probably find distasteful. This is what I came up with. Lali-ho!

The Dwarven Tank

The main body of the dwarven tank resembles a boxy steel shell, longer than it is wide. Along the bottom edge of the shell are small steel sheets, attached to the shell by hinges. When the metal sheets are raised, one can see that there are four large iron wheels supporting the shell, and that it otherwise has no bottom to it. On top of the shell, in the center of its surface area, is a large flat disc, and from that disc protrudes a long cylindrical barrel, 7ft long. On both ends of the long shell are small protrusions, the purpose of which is not readily apparent.

As large as the dwarven tank may seem from the outside, within things are positively cramped. Each tank employs crew of 11 of the strongest dwarves available. Six dwarves serve as “movers,” two dwarves serve as backup movers, one dwarf serves as spotter, one as driver, and one as hammermaster. Since the tank has no bottom, all eleven dwarves must walk in unison with the tank’s movements, which is surprisingly difficult for a large number of dwarves to do within such a cramped space.

The six movers are divided three to each side, where they take hold of sturdy bars mounted into the inner-walls of the steel shell. Their task is simple: push in unison, either forward or backward, according to the instructions of the driver. The six movers are rotated in shifts with the two backup movers, to ensure that no dwarf ever spends too long at the strenuous task of moving the behemoth dwarven tank.

The two protrusions at either end of the tank are periscopes, which are used by the spotter to give instructions both to the driver, and to the hammermaster. The tank completely lacks windows , or openings of any sort save the flaps at the bottom of the tank, so without the spotter and his periscopes, the dwarven tank crew would be blind. The driver stands at one end of the tank, where a number of controls are mounted. A wheel for steering, various pulleys to raise the metal flaps to help the tank move over obstacles.

The hammermaster mans the gun, or the “Shock-Put” as the dwarves call it. He uses a pair of heavy cranks to adjust the vertical angle from 0 to 80 degrees, and the horizontal angle up to 180 degrees. These cranks are adjusted according to instructions from the spotter. Once the gun is aimed correctly, the two movers currently off-duty take one of the “shock rocks” from the large bin on the opposite end of the tank from the driver. The shock rock is then loaded into the bottom of the shock put, which is then sealed.

The seal of the shock-put holds the shock rock in place while the hammermaster prepares his swing. When the crew is ready to fire, the hammermaster takes up a large two-handed warhammer, and strikes the the bottom of the shock-put, where a piston is mounted. The piston has a special permanent explosive rune enchanted on the inside, which strikes the shock-rock with all the force the hammermaster can transfer into it. The resulting explosion, which varies in strength based on the force with which piston is struck, sends the shock-rock careening out of the shock put at fantastic speeds, often flying as far as five or seven hundred feet when struck by a skilled hammermaster.

Most dwarven tank groups also carry a small supply of explosive shock rocks, which are themselves covered in explosive runes. These projectiles cause significantly more damage, but are difficult to create, and thus not used as frequently.

It is said that once, long ago, a great dwarven king built a mithril tank which, due to its relatively light frame, could move twice as fast as most dwarven tanks. However, due to the rarity of mithril, this tale is often dismissed as a fabrication.

Succubi in Succubus Town

Succubus Twins Chillin' on a wall. I’m obsessed with Comma, Blank_’s Google Analytics profile. Fiddling around with it, learning new things about my traffic, and watching the ways in which my readership has grown in the last few months tickles me pink. And more than anything else, I obsess over are search terms. Knowing what people are looking for when they find your site is not only useful, but it can be gods damned hilarious. Someone searching for “bar0n’ika” ended up finding Colorful Characters 4: Baron Ika of the Treebreaker Tribe, and someone searching for “erotic art inspired by the dungeons & dragons monster manual” found a scan from the 3.5 Monster Manual which I once uploaded but never used.

Hits from unusual search terms like those listed above tend to be rare. Most people find Comma, Blank_ by searching for much more mundane terms: dungeon door, elf archer, orc ranger, etc. One unusual term, however, is actually quite common. In fact, it is the number one search term which leads people to visit this site: “Succubi in Succubus town.”

The page these folks are finding, of course, is my post from early December entitled “Succubi Deserve More,” which I think is among some of my better work. I’m only too happy that people are finding it. But I can’t help but wonder why in the world so many people are searching for this term in the first place. I tried searching it myself, and can find no reference to any kind of succubus town whatsoever. Mostly it’s just novels by a woman named Nina Harper. I would think that, given the frequency with which the term is searched for, that it was an actual reference to something which could be found online. But no such luck.

In discussing this oddity with some of my friends, we got to joking about what a succubus town might look like. Which is when it hit upon me that I should actually start taking notes on our conversation, because writing a post about a town populated entirely by succubi sounds awesome.

The City of Al Uzzara
Colloquially known as “Succubus Town,” or just “Sex City,” Al Uzzara is an opulent metropolis located on the 570th layer of the Abyss; Malcanthet’s Domain. Unlike many parts of the abyss it is generally considered a pleasant place to visit. The entire permanent population of Al Uzzara are succubi and incubi, and within the city limits these otherwise evil creatures seem intent on nothing but making their guests comfortable and happy during their stay.

Unfortunately, no one is able to truthfully explain precisely how their stay was made pleasant. A permanent and powerful enchantment on the city of Al Uzzara causes any non-succubus who visits to completely forget anything which happened there within an hour of their departure. All they are left with is a vague sensation of how they felt about their stay.

On the surface, Al Uzzara is a place where any being can satisfy their carnal urges easily and cheaply. Every inn doubles as a brothel, and every eating establishment is accompanied by a burlesque show. Demons are the city’s most common patrons, but beings of many cultures which view planar travel as commonplace visit Al Uzzara frequently. Even humanoids are a common enough sight here, though few creatures of a goodly alignment ever willingly travel to the abyss.

The succubic residents of Al Uzzara happily alter their mannerisms, their forms, even their gender, so as to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of their visitors. And succubi are very good at determining a creature’s innermost desires. The guile and trickery which is known throughout the multiverse to be synonymous with succubi seems conspicuously absent here. Most who venture here become overwhelmed by the decadent possibilities to dwell on that curiosity. Those few who do look beyond the surface of Al Uzzara quickly find the natives to be much less friendly. If they are unlucky enough to actually discover anything, they may never return from the city of sex.

In truth, the city is, literally, a breeding ground of demonic soldiers and slaves. The succubi of Al Uzzara entice their male visitors to engage in as much debauched sex as possible, allowing the succubi to give birth to demon spawn which may then be sold as troops for the generals of the blood war, or as slaves to anyone who desires them. Female visitors are likewise encouraged to entertain their wildest desires, only to then be drugged, and have their gestation periods magically accelerated. When they awake they will never know what evil’s they’ve helped bring into existence.

Al Uzzara is a walled city, with many high towers and sky bridges overlooking the beautiful, but deadly, gardens of the 570th layer of the abyss. It is divided into a number of districts designed to appeal to a variety of archetypical sexual predilections. There are posh pleasure palaces, and lascivious libraries. A district of seedy back alley debauchery, and one of not-so-chaste religious figures–though none of the churches here are consecrated of course. There are even areas of the city for those who like to dominate, or be dominated by others. The city’s main roads are designed to allow visitors to travel directly to an area which suits their desires, without passing into an area they may not want to visit.

The Nexus: All throughout Al Uzzara are hidden doors. Every bedchamber, every harem, every place where a visitor might think themselves alone (save their companionship) is accessible from the nexus. It is a circular stone chamber, buried deep beneath the deepest basements of the city above. Seven ascending ramps spiral outward from the bottom of the chamber. Every few feet along the wall of the chamber is a portal, showing a view of the chamber it leads to. Walking through the portal causes one to appear in some innocuous place out of sight of the room’s occupants. The Nexus is used both to carry female guests to the birthing chamber, and to secretly switch out a male guest’s companions, so that his previous companions may visit the birthing chamber.

The Birthing Chamber: A short hallway at the bottom of the Nexus leads to the Birthing Chamber. Succubi, inherently capable of controlling their own reproductive process, visit here only to drop off their spawn in cages to be sold later. For the non-succubi who are brought here, there are a rows of comfortable couches attended by succubi particularly adept in sorcerous magics. They accelerate the gestation periods of these females, dull their pain and heal any damage caused by the birthing, then call on others to carry them back through the nexus while their young are prepared for sale.

The Horns: The horns are the two tallest buildings in Al Uzzara. They are conically shaped–wide at the base, and rising to a point at the top. This is the only visible portion of the city which visitors are not allowed to access, and in fact, it can only be accessed by one with the ability to fly. The right tower is the seat of the city’s government. Malcanthet reigns supreme over Al Uzzara, as she does over the entire 570th layer, but she rarely visits this city. The rule of Al Uzzara is largely left to a council of 30 succubi, whose primary concerns are drawing willing victims to the city, and bartering deals with those who wish to purchase the slaves the city produces. The left tower is home to the city’s enforcers, collectively known as biters. Violence and conflict are rare in Al Uzzara, and when they occur there is normally a succubus on hand who can easily handle the situation themselves. The biters primarily concern themselves with watching for any who have remained in the city too long, or who seem to be paying too much attention to how the city is run.

Magical Marvels 3: Wallcraft’s Offerings

This week’s artifact duom spear, also from my Ascendant Crusade campaign, is again illustrated by my ladyfriend. You should check out more of her art on her DeviantArt page.

Duom Spear Wallcraft's OfferingsWallcraft’s Offerings
Artifact Duom Spear


The Duom spear, introduced in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 supplement Arms and Equipment Guide is a longspear with a standard spearhead, as well as two blades curved so that they point backward along the shaft. The weapon has reach, allowing you to strike opponents 10 feet away with it. Those proficient with the duom can also attack adjacent foes with the reversed heads using a practiced “reverse thrust.” Apply a -2 penalty on the attack roll if you use the duom to attack a second, adjacent opponent in the same round you attacked the first opponent. Duom spears cost about 20gp, deal 1d8 damage for medium creatures, with a critical multiplier of 3 on a natural twenty. They weigh 8 pounds on average, and deal piercing damage.


(Main Blade)1d8 + 5 (Piercing)(20/x3)(10ft.)
(Reverse Blades) 1d8 + 5 (Piercing)(20/x3)(5ft.)
(Shaft) 1d6 + 5 (Bludgeoning)(20/x2)(5ft.)


At Will- Unhallow, cast by thrusting Wallcraft’s Offering into the ground for two minutes. (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Pg. 363)

At Will – Animate Dead, cast by letting the droplets of blood from Wallcraft’s Offering fall onto a viable corpse for 1 full round. (PFCR Pg. 241)


  • Though Duoms are not made for throwing, Wallcraft’s Offerings magically gives it a throwing range increment of 20ft.
  • At will it can be summoned to its owners hands.
  • At will, the blood dripping from The Blind Empress’ hand can create a cloud of red mist around the spear’s blade, granting a +5 to bluff checks when attempting to feint.
  • Once per day, The Blind Empress’ discarded eye can guide the spear in magical flight. A target who is within the sight of the thrower must be selected, and the thrower must speak the command word “May Vecna make my aim true!” Wallcraft’s Offering then flies through the air at a speed of 120ft per round, following the target even around corners, and up to one mile distant from the thrower. After either hitting or missing the target, or reaching 1 mile of distance, Wallcraft’s Offering is magically summoned back to the thrower’s hands.
  • Wallcraft’s Offering grants the wielder a +10 on Spellcraft, Knowledge(Arcana), and knowledge (Religion) checks.
  • When attempting to recruit followers of Vecna, the wielder is granted +5 to their leadership score. All normal leadership restrictions apply.
  • The character wielding Wallcraft’s Offering is treated as one level higher for the purposes of determining how many undead they can control.
  • Wallcraft’s Offering can be used as a holy symbol by followers of Vecna.
  • Wallcraft’s Offering radiates a strong aura of Necromancy and Evil.


The blade’s shaft is made of a polished bronze, which is perfectly smooth, yet does not slide in the hand when gripped. The shaft ends in an expertly crafted bronze skull, from which springs the the adamantium spear blade. A pair of imp’s wings, torn from the back of one of the foul creatures, have been magically turned to iron and shaped into the duom’s reverse blades. The Whispered Queen’s eye, plucked from her own head, is mounted between the two wings. Likewise her hand, cut from her own arm, clutches the duom’s shaft just below the spear blade. Though it has been severed for years, it still bleeds profusely. Any blood which falls from it, however, disappears shortly after it touches the ground.


Not much is known about the early life of the woman for whom this weapon was named. She was always shrouded in mystery, and what was known of her has now been lost to the mists of time. What people do know are the titles she earned for herself. Vecna’s Heartfelt Voice, The Blind Empress, the Whispered Queen, Lady of the Ascent–Warmisstress Wallcraft. From her granite throne at center of the Citadel of the Seed, she ruled over the known world with an iron fist for a thousand years. Though it has been centuries since the end of her rule, there are few more terrifying figures in history than she. Perhaps even more so, now that she sits at the right hand of the god she served so well.

It is said that the Whispered Queen was chosen at a young age by Vecna himself. That he groomed her, and guided her to usurp the leadership of his religion from her long forgotten predecessor. That when she stood over the bloody corpse, she turned the knife on herself, and cut out her eyes and her left hand in honor of her god.

The followers of Vecna–those few who still remain–know the story to be a little less dramatic. The Whispered Queen did usurp leadership of the Cult of Vecna from the former leader, and in doing so, obtained both The Hand and The Eye. The removal of her own hand and eye were a gesture of faith, yes, but it was also necessary for her to affix the powerful artifacts to her own body. And she only removed one eye, as the other had been lost during her youth. But even the faithful do not know that tale.

After gaining control the Cult of Vecna, The Whispered Queen took her severed hand and eye, and forged them into one of the most magnificent weapons the world has ever seen. Working with her companions, including master tactician Kisteer Forktongue, The Whispered Queen systematically conquered kingdom after kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Often neighboring nations were completely unaware that their ally had been conquered until the forces of Vecna were on their own doorstep. The world fell before her might, and her empire lasted a thousand years.

But all empires must fall. The Whispered Queen finally met her end at the hands of upstart peasants, and Wallcraft’s Offering was seemingly lost to the ages.

What is not commonly known is that one of the peasants who defeated the Whispered Queen, a paladin named Toryan, tried to destroy the vile weapon, but could not. No fire would smelt it, no axe would sunder it, no hammer could even dull its razor edge. At a loss for options, she gathered together three dozen other paladins from her order, and they traveled deep into the wilderness. When they reached a suitable place, they all dug together for nine days, and placed the spear in a sealed adamantium box, upon which they placed powerful wards against evil and divination–hoping to keep its location hidden from the god of secrets himself.

The 37 paladins then buried the box again, and vowed to dedicate their lives to its protection. They settled there, and built a small farming community on the ground above their ward. Generations have passed, and the community has grown to a small town of 300 people. Most know nothing of their town’s founders, or of their town’s sacred purpose. They are no longer even deep in the wilderness: civilization has spread out around them, and there are several other communities nearby. Only the twelve town elders, and the town’s High Cleric know of the secret beneath the earth, and even they know only that a great evil rests there which must be protected.

But centuries have passed, and the magical protections have begun to weaken…

A Personal History of Role Playing

A Younger LS Reading the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Player HandbookWhen I was young, I liked to play pretend. When we’re young, we all do. I played “Star Wars” a lot, putting myself into the role of Luke Skywalker, waving sticks around and making “vroosh!” noises with my mouth. As I got a little older, and my friends started to be more interested in bicycles and video games, I continued to enjoy playing pretend. Which isn’t to say I didn’t love video games or bicycles. I distinctly remember being a member of a “biker gang” which wasn’t allowed to cross any streets, so we just rode around the block over and over. But while my friends stopped playing pretend, my fantasies only became more elaborate. I even started making up my own characters, drawing pictures of them, and writing notes about their various abilities and weapons. Looking back on it, these pieces of paper were proto-character sheets.

I owe it to Bill Amend, the brilliant cartoonist behind the long-running syndicated comic strip Fox Trot, for first introducing me to the concept of tabletop role playing games. You see, one of my other passions as a young child was reading the comic strips in the daily newspaper. Even after my family stopped having the paper delivered, because my parents didn’t have time to read it, I convinced my grandmother to save the comic page for me. I even kept all of the comic pages in a box under my bed. If you’re not familiar with Fox Trot, one of the primary characters is ten year old Jason Fox, a geeky kid who excels academically, and is passionate about many “nerdy” pursuits. I can’t recall precisely when, but at some point during my childhood the strip featured Jason and his friend Marcus playing Dungeons and Dragons. The game wasn’t mentioned by name, but the core elements were all on display: a dungeon master’s screen, dice, and the DM weaving a world for the player’s character to explore.

Bill Amend Foxtrot Jason and Marcus play Dungeons and Dragons

The notion intrigued me. I was too young then to remember what precisely went through my mind, but I knew that whatever they were doing looked fun, and I wanted to play too. I constructed a GM screen out of black construction paper, and glued little pieces of note paper to the inside of it. On the note paper, I wrote the rules I had made up for the game. I also recall creating small tokens–doodles on pieces of paper–to represent adventurers and monsters. I also had a bowl with numbered scraps of paper to take the place of the dice. My parents warned me that the game I was emulating was an evil one–which would prove to be a major point of contention later in my life. But, to their credit, they didn’t go so far as to forcibly stop me from pursuing the project. I spent at least a few days working on my primitive version of D&D, but never really figured out how to make all the elements come together into a cohesive game. Nor could I convince any of my siblings to play with me. Eventually I gave up and largely forgot about the project, as kids are apt to do.

Eventually I joined my friends in growing out of playing pretend–though I never did stop quietly imagining myself to be someone else. That’s something I still do to this day. But so far as role playing is concerned, I didn’t take my next step until I was about 14 years old. That’s when my family finally got an Internet connection, and an entire world outside of my orthodox catholic homeschooler existence opened up. Writing about my history with the Internet and the impact it had on my life could be a whole other post altogether. But what’s important is that it didn’t take long for me to break my parents rule about never talking to other people on the Internet. In short order I found forums, and on forums, I found people role playing.

It was awful. The role plays I participated in those days were all themed around the Legend of Zelda mythos, yet most of the players were playing Final Fantasy characters. Not ripoffs mind you, characters like Auron, Sephiroth, and Red XIII were (for some reason) determined to save Hyrule. I hesitate to even mention the character I played, because I don’t think anyone directly involved remembers, but my character was actually named “Link Skywalker.” He traveled through dimensions living through other people’s lives. After living through someone’s life, he had all of their abilities and equipment. I honestly cannot tell you how tempted I am to simply edit this paragraph out and let my readers go on blissfully unaware of how shamefully bad my early role playing was.

A younger LS judges a fencing boutIt was around this same time that I joined a saber fencing class, which may seem irrelevant. However, this is the class where I first met Jeremy. He was quite a bit older than me, and in the advanced class, but we connected over our shared nerdiness. It wasn’t long before we spent more time talking than we did fencing, and I eventually learned that he played Dungeons and Dragons. I had always been interested in D&D, since I realized it was what Jason and Marcus had been playing in that old Fox Trot comic. However, my parents had made it very clear to me that such games were strictly forbidden–not just by them, but by “almighty god.” I wasn’t really convinced that D&D was evil, but at that time I was scared enough of my parents that I didn’t pursue the topic further.

My forum role playing continued for several years, and the quality of it improved a great deal. I abandoned my original character almost immediately in favor of one I dubbed Beloch Shrike (partially after the villain from Raiders of the Lost Arc, and partially after the villain from The Paradise Snare by A.C. Crispin.) The rest of the group similarly matured, and we experimented with a lot of different things. Some of the most important friendships of my life were formed during these early role playing experiences. Eventually, I even attempted to start a website, titled Epic Journeys, which would serve as a nexus of tools, information, and guides to help people facilitate running their own forum role plays. The project never really got off the ground, though I did actually manage to accomplish one thing. As part of the project, I coined the term “Online Text Based Role Playing Game,” or “OTBRPG,” and added it to Wikipedia (not then fully aware that this was a serious violation of Wikipedia’s rules.) Not only was the article never removed, but I have since actually met people who use the term without knowing I invented it. Seriously, google it. The phrase has entered somewhat common usage. This never ceases to crack me up, but I digress.

The Chatechism of the malevolent entity known as the Catholic ChurchEverything changed for me, quite suddenly, in the last half of 2004. I was seventeen, still heavily involved in forum role playing, and starting to develop a taste for philosophy. My continued interest in Dungeons and Dragons led me to begin looking through the Catechism of the Catholic Church (big book o’ rules) looking for any mention of role playing or D&D. After finding none, I went online and found a forum dedicated to Catholics discussing their faith. I asked them what they thought about D&D being evil, and if you want to see something hilarious, the entire thread is still online and available to read. (Though apparently it now shows up as an unsafe link in most browsers. As best I can tell it is still safe to visit.) Most of the answers from other posters seemed to agree that there was nothing inherently wrong with D&D, so I printed the thread out and proudly presented it to my parents. After reading the printout, however, they summarily denied my request to be allowed to play the game. My parents were pretty terrifying people, and I grudgingly obeyed them.

Two months later, in September, I met Stephanie, and the changes in my life accelerated. We had a lot in common, including a shared interest in Dungeons and Dragons. At that time I had still never played, and she had played only once or twice. I won’t go into the details of our relationship, as is still somewhat painful, and certainly outside this blog’s subject matter. Suffice to say that I was head over heels. By November we were dating, and the relationship lasted for six years. In those early days of our relationship, I did a lot of things in order to spend more time with her. I bought a copy of Starcraft so we could have Battle.net dates. And, more relevantly, I took my fencing buddy Jeremy up on his standing offer to borrow his copy of the Dungeons and Dragons third edition core rulebooks. I hid them under some papers in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. Most kids are probably hiding weed, booze, porn and sex from their parents when they’re 17. I was hiding role playing sourcebooks. Some might see it as sad, but I’m actually rather proud of that.

LS and his Red With Blue Flecks dice tower. It is glorious. The first little bit of D&D I ever played was with Stephanie. It was bad. I GMed a really short adventure for her where she fought a mummy. I didn’t understand any of the rules, and I was throwing stats around left and right without any idea what they meant. Fortunately, my parents and the rest of my family were out of town the following week, so Jeremy came over to give me a proper introduction to the game. Again: most kids throw drinking parties when they’re seventeen and their parents are out of town. I threw an adventuring party, and I’m proud of that. When Jeremy arrived he brought a gift with him: my own set of dice. They were a deep red with blue flecks, and they came in a plastic cylinder. He also brought with him his brand-new 3.5 edition core rulebooks, helped me roll up my very first rogue, and ran me through a simple Colosseum adventure where I fought some green needle monster things. It was glorious.

I continued in that way for quite some time. I purchased my own copies of the 3.5 rulebooks, and Jeremy would GM for me at his home. His ladyfriend, Jacie, eventually joined me as a gnomish cleric, and the two of us had many fine adventures together. I don’t remember how long it took for my parents to find out, likely just a few months if I remember correctly. I had just returned from a game at Jeremy’s, and went to find them to let them know I was home, my laptop bag filled with D&D supplies still in hand. They looked at me funny, and asked what I did when I was over at Jeremy’s. I tried to be nonchalant, and told them that we mostly just played games. They responded;

“Do you play Dungeons and Dragons?”

“Yes,” I said.

They didn’t really react much at all to that. Merely nodded and seemed to accept that this was a thing I was doing now. I never have been able to tell what things will make my parents angry and what things they can accept. For awhile I thought that, perhaps, they had mellowed out a bit, and become more accepting. That notion was proven wrong recently, when I asked them if I could buy my younger brother the Pathfinder Beginner Box for Christmas. They denied my request, adding that they didn’t like what “those types of games” had already done to one of their children. Cest’la vie.

A young LS' desk covered with the tools of the game master's craft. Never the less, I took my books out from the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, and placed them lovingly on one of my bookshelves.

Jeremy and I continued to play together, and I tried my hand at GMing several times. I’ve always loved crafting worlds. In fact, as a young child I used to spend a lot of time drawing complex maps for a monster-filled series of caverns.* I was born to be a GM, but running games for one person can be a limiting experience. I needed a larger group, but I had been home schooled since the fourth grade, and didn’t really have the social tools to make friends. At least, that is, until I enrolled in college for the Fall 2005 semester. College is supposedly an eye opening experience even for kids who attended an actual school, so you can imagine what a change it was for me. I met so many wonderful people there, including Chris and Jeremy. They were my first gaming group. I was so happy to finally have one that I actually purchased Player’s Handbooks for both of them. We had some great games together, and they even invited some of their own friends along, giving me a nice full party to work with.

LS and the first Dungeons and Dragons group he regularly Game Mastered for.

To repeat an old cliche, the rest is history. Gaming groups have come and gone, and there have often been weeks or months at a time when I don’t get to play, but my love for the game always remains. It’s been over seven years since I picked up my first sourcebook–which seems like such a short amount of time compared to the lifetime I feel I’ve lived as a gamer. Jeremy plays in most of my games, and still serves as my GM whenever we play Zalekios. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there will always be people out there who want to play games. All they need is someone to suggest it, and be willing to show them how it’s done.

*Holy shit. I can’t believe I never thought of using these old drawings as a dungeon for my players before. I know exactly where they are.

Monstrous Culture

Lord of the Rings Orc Face Culture is important. No matter how much of an individual we think we are, each and every one of us is shaped by our culture in profound ways which we aren’t even aware of. For example, those of us who pride ourselves on individualism? We probably come from cultures, like the U.S., which emphasize individualism as a positive trait. Given all the fundamental ways in which our culture shapes us, it should be obvious that understanding a person’s culture is an essential element in understanding their outlook. Where am I going with this?

The cultures of the most basic, most iconic monstrous races in fantasy adventure games are all shit. And it ought to change, because I’m tired of ostensibly different creatures being functionally identical. Take, for example, four of the paragon monstrous races which have been harassing adventurers since first edition D&D: Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds, and Gnolls. Below, I’ve reduced the small amounts of cultural information for each of those races, taken from the Pathfinder Bestiary, to bullet points. If you’d like to check my work, these monsters can be found on pages 155, 156, 183, and 222.

Are violent and aggressive.
Are led by whoever is strongest.
Take what they want by force.
Don’t have regard for the lives of others.
Are not good at farming or herding.
Prefer to take things from others rather than earn those things for themselves.
Their largest group is a “band.”

Are filled with hatred.
Live in dark places and caves.
Are superstitious.
Scavenge items from the more civilized races rather than producing anything for themselves.
Are universally illiterate.
Their larges group is a “tribe.”

Live in caves and other dark places.
Are overly proud of their distant relationship to dragons.
Are cowardly.
Are schemers.
Prefer to attack in large groups.
Their largest group is a “tribe.”

Prefer to scavange or steal kills, rather than hunt themselves.
View non-Gnolls as either meat, or slaves.
Enjoy fighting, but only if they have an overwhelming advantage.
See no value in courage or valor.
Their largest group is a “tribe.”

Based on those elements, how different are those four really? Is a goblin’s rage significantly different from the violence and aggressiveness of orcs? Why do Orcs, Goblins, and Gnolls all universally prefer to take rather than to make? The similarities become even more obvious if you expand the cultural definitions beyond what is found in the scant few lines offered in the bestiary. Ask any gamer to give you the primary characteristic of goblins, and I’ll bet you a shiny new platinum piece that they’ll say “cowardice” nine times out of ten. That makes three out of four monstrous races which, despite supposedly being threatening, are culturally defined by their cowardice.

Most people who play tabletop games are familiar with the phrase “humans in funny hats.” A human in a funny hat is a non-human character who is played without regard for race defining characteristics. Such as a dwarf who doesn’t care for gold, or ale, or stonework, and prefers to live above ground. Such characters are, essentially, being played as humans. They’re merely wearing the skin, or the ‘hat,’ of another race.

Here I think we’re dealing with a similar problem. Out of four monsters, most of their cultural traits overlap with each other. The problem only becomes more pronounced if you begin to add more creatures, such as lizardfolk or bugbears. In the end there really seems to be only one or two different types of monster cultures in play, reiterated through lizard people, dog people, dragon people, green people, small green people, and so on. A GM who wants his players to face a large force of angry, marauding creatures without regard for human life could sub in any one of these races without needing to alter how his or her campaign is constructed at all.

I’d like to try to develop legitimately distinct cultures for each of the monstrous races in my campaigns, starting with these four.

I’m rather fond of the “noble savage” version of orcs put forth in the Warcraft games. I’m not sure where this depiction of orcs originates, but I think it has merit. A race which is warlike and brutal, but which also holds honor above all other concerns. Of course, different Orcish subcultures define honor on their own terms. For some it might mean victory in fair combat, for others it might simply mean the number of notches on a warrior’s axe.

Given their warlike nature, I would think that Orcs are carnivorous rather than omnivorous. They are master hunters, and the hunt is a central theme in their culture. Orcs often attack other orcs, or other races, on sight. Orcs who have not spent a great deal of time amongst other races will not understand that non-orcs do not view fighting and death to be desirable.

Given their constant warring, both with themselves and with other races, most Orcish tribes lag far behind other species technologically.

Of all the monstrous races, I think goblins are most fit to keep most of the traditional monster culture. They are a weak and cowardly tribal people, who feel anger and rage more strongly than any of their other emotions. Since they rely on each other for self preservation, they turn their anger outward, towards other races. Though plenty of goblin squabbles still turn deadly.

They are a sadistic lot, and enjoy taking out their anger and their hate on those who can’t properly defend themselves; be it small animals, commoners, or adventurers unprepared for the sheer number of goblins they faced.

Goblins are also stupid and superstitious, often attributing magical or divine properties to the mundane. And lastly, goblins are scavengers. They live in caves or in abandoned structures, and like to collect items stolen from other races.

I went over some of my thoughts on Kobolds in my recent Magical Marvels post. I view them as a humble people, who look to dragons as their great rulers or heroes. They recognize that they are weak, and do not seek to prove themselves in combat against other groups or races. Their unassuming nature has made them the doormats of the world, which has prevented them from becoming as technologically advanced as the other races. And since most kobolds prefer to spend their entire lives living with their tribe, few kobolds go out into the world to bring knowledge back to their people.

Their lack of advancement is a shame, because despite their humble nature, kobolds are remarkably clever. The very few who do manage to summon the courage to leave their people, and then are lucky enough to encounter kindly and learned fellows, have proven to be quick learners. More than one great general throughout history has kept a kobold adviser. Many great researchers and wizards have also had kobold assistants. In candid moments, those generals, researchers, and wizards might even admit that some of their great accomplishments were really the work of their kobold associate.

Gnolls are, essentially, 9ft tall intelligent Hyenas. So we just need to scroll down to the behavior section of the wikipedia page and…well some of the basic traits I outlined above actually work pretty well. Gnolls are scavengers and kill stealers. However, they are anything but cowardly as fighters. They fight ferociously, and without mercy. Their greater size compared to other humanoids instills them with great confidence in combat–but they are not above flight if they feel they are outmatched. As noted above, Gnolls do not hold valor as a virtue.

Gnolls are relatively smart, but simple and lazy. They do what they need to do to fill their needs: eating, sleeping, and reproducing. Once they’ve got those things taken care of, they don’t care much for anything else.

NOTE: It occurs to me, having written this, that Paizo has released both a “Goblins of Golarion,” and an “Orcs of Golarion” supplement. It is possible that these concerns are partially addressed in those booklettes. I think the larger issue remains valid, though.

Handling Overpowered Player Characters

Dragon Magazine issue 314 Cover I spent most of today working on a project which will affect the future of Comma, Blank_. Once completed, I think it will be a huge improvement for this humble blog. Until that time, however, I’m afraid that working on it is consuming much of the time I would otherwise be using to play tabletop games, and write about them for your amusement. I’ve actually been working on it since early December, and only mention it now because I accidentally let it get far too late on a day which I’m supposed to post something. So my options are to stay up really late to finish today’s post, or cop-out. And with work in the morning, I’ve decided to cop-out. So I hope you liked Gary Gygax’s story of the Jeweled Man from last week, because it’s time for another post based on The All-Father’s column.

This time it’s a tale of self-destructing PCs from Dragon #314, first published in December of 2003. Gygax reminisces about an overconfident player with a high leveled character he didn’t earn, and gives advice on how to deal with such players. Advice I don’t entirely agree with, in matter of fact. But we’ll get to that later.

Once again, I will reprint Gygax’s original words here, but I do so without permission. I’m doing this because this is from a seven-year-old issue of a magazine which has been out of print for almost 5 years (by Vecna’s Eye, has it been that long? ;_;). To my knowledge, it’s not currently possible to read this column unless you somehow manage to physically acquire an original copy of the issue. And once again, I will happily remove it if contacted by anyone from Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, or the Gygax Estate.

Self Destructing PCs

Unearned levels are the PC’s worst enemy

Many DMs have asked me how I handle characters that are obviously over-powered, “jumped-up” PCs that never really earned their high abilities and survive by massive hit-point total, super magic, and unearned ease in attacking with sword or spell. To such inquiries, I respond that in recognizing this sort of character I simply play the encounters a bit differently, mainly in the presentation of information, not in “fudging” of the dice rolls for monsters. Inept players will destroy their characters without having to resort to such methods. Allow me to illustrate this with the following account:

While at a regional convention in upstate New York, I was asked to run adventures in my campaign’s Castle Greyhawk Dungeons. An assembly of players gathered for what was billed a moderate-level excursion. One aggressive young chap came to the table with a 13th-level ranger, supposedly his least powerful character. Although the others in the group had PCs of about half that level and were chary about including the lad with the ranger, I assured them all would work just fine, even with experience division given by shares according to level.

There followed some initial exploration and minor encounters as the team worked its way down into the dungeon maze. The first real test came when the party came into a large chamber with many pillars and several doors. As the main group discussed what strategy they would follow in this locale, a bold dwarf broke off and opened a nearby door. Rather than telling the player what he saw, I told the players this:

“The dwarf slams the door. He reels back and comes staggering towards the rest of you, stammering something that sounds like. ‘G-ga-get back! W-wuh… Horrible! A bunch of them!’ He is obviously fearful and thus incoherent.

The 13th-level ranger hesitated not a moment. Without consulting with his fellows, the character ran to the door that the dwarf had slammed closed and opened it without concern. The four wights that were preparing to exit their lair confronted him, won initiative, and two succeeded in hitting. In the ensuing melee, these undead monsters managed to strike the ranger twice more, so at the end of the battle, the ranger was of a level more commensurate with the others, 9th as it were.

Much disturbed by that turn of events, but clearly not chagrined by his rash behavior and the results, the ranger insisted on leading the way. Soon thereafter, they discovered a staircase down, and beside it lay an alcove wherein a great clay pot rested, radiating heat and billowing smoke. The other PCs advised leaving the strange vessel alone, but the ranger determined to attack it. As he did so, all the other characters fled the area. With a single blow the ranger shattered the pot, and thus a really angry fire elemental was freed. It didn’t take long for that monster to finish off the ranger, and thereafter it departed.

I took the character sheet from the fellow, suggesting that he should be more careful with such potent characters in the future, for surely he had spent a long time gaining 13th level with his now dead ranger PC. He left the table without comment, and the rest of the group went on to several exciting hours of dungeon delving.

This shows that unearned levels don’t translate to playing ability. To the contrary, the power gained often makes the player overconfident. Any able DM can craft adventures that weed out unwise and inept players who think to bulldoze their way through problems by use of undeserved power. That’s possible only in computer games where saved games and cheat codes serve to reward such play.

Clearly, the culture surrounding the game in those days was significantly different than it is today. I can’t imagine a GM taking a player’s character sheet like that. But, then, neither can I really imagine arguing with Gary Gygax if he was my Dungeon Master.

Vegeta, what's the reader say about his power level? IT'S OVER NINE THOUSAND!This column struck a cord with me because my own character, Zalekios Gromar, is bursting with unearned power. Not only is he a Gestalt character with levels in both Warlock and Rogue, but a few years back my GM facetiously gave him a Ring of 100 Wishes, which rocketed his undeserved power level into the stratosphere. Of course, Zalekios is a very special case. He has no party–no companions to excel in the areas where he is weak. He’s got to be able to handle everything by himself. That being said, though, he could still probably out-perform four characters of equivalent level. The character is overpowered. I won’t argue that.

The way my GM and I have always handled it is simply to raise the difficulty of the challenges Zalekios must face. And, when we get it right, it works very well. A few sessions ago, Zalekios was very nearly killed when he was attacked by a level 16 gestalt Paladin/Barbarian character. My GM overruled the fact that Paladins must be lawful, and Barbarians must be Chaotic, because he’s evil like that. The combination of rage and smite evil very nearly ended Zalekios career. If not for some clever tactics on my part, using Dimensional Door and Eldritch Blast to keep my foe at range, I would not have survived.

And if all the players are overpowered, that’s a fine solution. But most often, that’s not the case. Players being different levels than one another is not often a problem in modern games, but power disparity will always exist. Sometimes players pull min-maxed builds off of the Internet. Other times, you underestimate just how effective a certain magic item will be in the hands of your players. Or, occasionally, a player just gets really stupidly lucky with a Deck of Many Things. And in this, I think Gary’s advice is eternal.

Let player skill determine whether your player deserves what he or she has. Give them opportunities to be overconfident, and pay for it. A player who has easily cut through challenges which the other players would have struggled with is going to come to expect it. So throw them a curve-ball. Drop a high leveled monster on them, and watch as they refuse to run away from a fight. Don’t take their power from them, just put them into a position where foolish action will cause them to lose it.

Of course, this may not always work. If your player is just as skilled as they are powerful, then you may need to reassess. You don’t want them to ruin the game for the other PCs who are left to stroll in their companion’s wake. But neither do you want to punish the player if they’ve made no mistakes. At this point you might consider making a loss of their power part of an important quest. Perhaps the artifact they acquired is evil and needs to be destroyed, or perhaps it is the lost blade of a celestial general who needs it to continue the battle against evil. If the deck of many things granted the player millions of gold, let him learn that an equivalent amount of gold disappeared from the coffers of a small nation, which is now unable to feed its people during a famine. If all else fails, you can just buff up the rest of the party, and the encounter level along with it.

As a side note, is it just me, or does it seem really uncool to take control of a player’s character? I know role playing games were different in those days, and the particular instance here is pretty mundane, but I can’t imagine ever doing that. The control a player has over their character is sacrosanct in my mind. I would have at least allowed him a saving throw versus fear.

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